It was October 2007 and Robert Shakespeare — the creator of the light totem that illuminates the 70-foot wall of the IU Art Museum — was installing the structure. The big unveiling of light totem was in a few days.
The young girl dragged her dad across the street and asked Shakespeare what he was ?doing. Shakespeare explained, and then he turned on the totem. Different colors of light danced on the wall, and the girl was ?mesmerized.
“Daddy,” she said, “It’s ?magic.”
The light totem was made in celebration of the IU Art Museum’s 25-year anniversary. After everything was done, it cost between $125,000 and $130,000 to put up. Many of those funds came from donations, ?Shakespeare said.
When it was installed 7 1/2 years ago, it was not supposed to be a permanent structure. It was supposed be taken down after two or three months. But the light totem got so much attention that nobody could take it down.
“Foot traffic increased,” Shakespeare said. “The analogy I use is a bonfire. If you build a big bonfire, people are going to be attracted to it.”
And then, a tradition began.
People sit at the base of the wall and put their feet up against it. It became part of IU students’ bucket list. Shakespeare doesn’t know how the tradition started. He would visit his totem and ask people, “Why are you putting your feet up on the wall? What are you seeing?”
“That’s my mom’s key lime pie coming down the wall,” one young woman told him, watching the green lights dance across the concrete.
After a while, he understood what they were seeing. Light Totem has six “songs,” as Shakespeare puts it. Each song uses different colors. For example, the IU fight song has red and white lights that bounce off the wall rapidly. During a couple other songs, a color pours down the wall and creates an optical ?illusion.
Everybody experiences the totem differently. Collin English and Jessica Huseman sat on the ground with their feet on the wall. This wasn’t their first time experiencing the totem.
“To me, it’s tradition,” English said.
Both English and Huseman described the experience like a sidewalk. If you imagine you’re looking ahead, it’s like the wall of the Art Museum is the ground, illuminated by dozens of colors.
“It’s hard to imagine, but you have to believe,” Huseman said with a laugh.
Benedict Jones experiences Light Totem in a different way. Jones is in a wheelchair, so he can’t put his feet up against the wall. Instead, he stands by the wall and looks directly at the totem, with his eyes closed. The colors wash over his closed eyes, and when the colors start flashing rapidly he gets the sensation he’s riding a roller coaster.
“It’s extremely emotive,” Jones said. “It causes you to feel really intense sensations.”
In April 2013 , Light Totem came down. Water had gotten inside the structure, froze, then expanded. That compromised the totem’s structural integrity.
During the 15 months the totem was down, the museum and Shakespeare got constantly peppered with questions.
“What happened to it?”
“Why is it gone?”
“When is it coming back?”
Light Totem was re-installed June 21, 2014. To anyone not familiar with light fixtures, Shakespeare said, it looks no different than before. The colors still bounce off the wall, and people still put their feet up against it.
Shakespeare has been in theater for 40 years. How he defines success for a piece of art is the effect it has on people who experience it. The same is true for Light Totem.
“If you have people inspired to propose in front of it, or to have it become a very special, magical place — I won,” Shakespeare said. “And it’s not an arrogant, ‘I won,’ it just makes me feel good. All the effort that went into it, it makes it all ?worthwhile.”
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